Lucy Kellaway has a nice piece in today’s Financial Times on the dumbing up of management research. She starts empirically with a typically silly bit of academic research on trust:
The Harvard Business Review then solemnly reported his findings, including the banal recommendation that “managers may want to require a modicum of oversight rather than let a team decide for itself”.
Oye. This is a revelation? Worse yet, it is predicated on prior silly research that implied the opposite. As Kellaway points out, this “nothing is what you think” approach breeds nihilism, much the same way that food research does, where wine is good for you, bad for you, good for you again, and so on:
As we never know what we are supposed to be eating or drinking, the only sensible course of action is to take no notice. If you don’t eat or drink excessively, if you aren’t entirely sedentary and (most importantly) if you are reasonably happy, then you should probably leave well alone. The same is true for management issues. The only sensible course of action is to ignore all the research and do whatever seems like a good idea anyway.
There is, of course, a big difference between food research and management research, as she concedes. While food research results might be bizarre and inconsistent, at least we can all agree that it is important to consider food’s effect on the body. The same is not true about management research, where it is near-impossible to establish a sufficently reliable experiment such that results are meaningful.
Worse yet, in the case of trust:
“…the initial question is senseless. The perfect amount of trust depends on the circumstances. The fewer the rules and the looser the structure, the more trust is needed. Is it possible to trust too much? Of course it is. If you trust someone not to stitch you up, and they do, then you trusted them too much. Within my place of work there are a couple of people I would almost trust with my life, a couple more I wouldn’t trust further than I could throw them. Most of the rest are somewhere in between. The point about trust at work is that there is no right amount.
Kellaway goes on to give examples of even worse stuff going on in management research, including a terrifying-sounding piece in the current MIT Sloan Management review (testing “communication aligned with the company’s overall strategy to enhance its strategic positioning”). Makes my head hurt. Why are there no class-actions suits directed at management schools? That’d be a step in the right direction.